The Power of Now – Stay Present and Be Joyous
By Cheran Gobiratnam
A book review of ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle, a best-selling spiritual author who teaches that we can escape psychological pain by surrendering to the Now.
Self-help books seem to be all the rage right now given the shift in societal perception regarding our feelings. Basically everyone’s quite sensitive now. ‘The Power of Now’ was published in 1997, but after a glowing recommendation from the famous-for-inspiring-others Oprah Winfrey in 2000, the book has exploded, with an estimate from 2009 that 3 million copies had been sold in North America. It’s also been translated into 33 different languages.
That’s because this book can transform the way you think. It certainly did to me. The opening part of the book is Tolle telling the reader how up until age 30 he “lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression”. He wondered then why he “ought to carry on with this continuous struggle” and “burden of misery”. The transition from such woe to self-help guru is stunning, but it is the first words of the opening sentence which ring even louder. “I have little use for the past and rarely think about it”. How many of you reading think back to the past everyday? Neglecting the present moment because your past ‘glories’ are more appealing. Or perhaps you look back to your regrets from the past, which you allow to haunt you now, all the while letting the present moment, the here and now slip away.
You see for Tolle presence is almost supernatural, it accentuates everything. When we are focused on the now, things we may call mundane like our breathing and background noise all become more intense, a vortex of energy that can’t be accessed when we are in our heads neurotically thinking. He laments the cultural obsession with over-thinking, an incessant noise which chips away at any chance of permanent joy. The object of his criticism is the ego, an insatiable, manipulative part of our mind that seeks external pleasures (sex, money, drugs, alcohol, social status), all the while never being satisfied and thus never allowing for true joy, just temporary relief, to be achieved. The Buddhist idea that Tolle promotes is that only once our ego is dead can we truly be alive. If you identify with your ego you must then die to be alive, a thought that may seem threatening but is instead liberating. In order to do this we must stay present, and he says we can do this by staying “the watcher”. The watcher is the consciousness behind your thoughts, which allows you to acknowledge what you’re thinking about. Tolle urges that as the watcher you cannot be judgemental of your thoughts, you must simply acknowledge them and let them be.
This can sometimes be difficult, and often it is easy to allow our ego to react. For instance when someone makes fun of you, if you derive your identity from your ego, you may feel compelled to bring that person down with your own remark or maybe hit him or her. At the time your immediate reaction may feel true but this is just the ego’s defence mechanism, as any attack on the ego’s identity causes us to feel we must react, as the ego cannot survive if it is being attacked. This is clearly a negative response and shows how insecure we can be. That is not to say we ought to oppress our emotions, but when you let things be, you become a happier person rather than one who swings from sadness to happiness continuously. Tolle feels that when we feel sad it is better to just let the emotion be, rather than to resist it or to feel too sorry for ourselves. You see even through putting ourselves through pain we are unconsciously doing this because this gives us an identity. We masochistically and sub-consciously indulge in our own ‘struggle’, which Tolle dismisses as being caught up in our life situation, all the while foregoing the fact that life, the joyous energy which can be experienced through presence doesn’t require what we may deem a satisfactory life situation. This is something many of us are guilty of; wallowing in self-pity as it feeds our egoist identity with a back-story. For example one’s life situation may seem ideal, he is rich, famous, young, good-looking, with high social status but could be constantly anxious and nervous of the future, and so missing out on life. Conversely someone may not have a stereotypically ideal life situation and be poor and lead what some may call a boring life yet be totally joyous because she has surrendered to the Now and so feels the joy of life.
Tolle’s formula for surrendering to the now has received criticism for being somewhat vague and impractical. While I can understand where this criticism is coming from, I do feel Tolle qualifies this by stating that one mustn’t get caught up in the terminology, such as enlightenment, Being, self, presence, etc. Rather he speaks of how we must simply ‘be’, and he is correct in that one can sense what he explains without getting caught in the cobwebs, as after all language is symbolic rather than absolute and set in stone. Simply listening to the sounds around you, the silence that goes between, and focusing on your breathing (meditation is a good tool) are ways we can be present. Additionally observing ourselves internally i.e. feeling how we feel inside. For instance when we feel angry or nervous often the body is stiff and tight, whereas when we are jovial the body is relaxed and free. Simply paying attention to the nature of our body is a way in which we can stay present, as this is something which is happening now. The mind is a powerful tool which can be used for great things, but it can easily destroy us if we become consumed by it. Stay present, watch your thoughts while not being judgemental, and you can stop giving yourself undue unhappiness. But don’t just take my word for it. Read ‘The Power of Now’, or at the very least watch some of Tolle’s YouTube videos, and see as your conditioned thought patterns are rebuffed by refreshing logic that will make you wonder how you were previously misled. It’s not just new-agey bull****, trust me.